At 7 Under, Lowry Seizes U.S. Open Advantage

Shane Lowry birdied two of his four holes on Sunday morning to put the finishing touches on a third-round 65. (USGA/Darren Carroll)
Shane Lowry birdied two of his four holes on Sunday morning to put the finishing touches on a third-round 65. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

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OAKMONT, Pa. – There is still too much golf to play, too many pressure putts to hole, too much Pepto-Bismol to swallow before the 116th U.S. Open is settled at Oakmont Country Club.

And there are still many contenders for the title – but with a brilliant end to Round 3, Shane Lowry of Ireland has made himself the primary one.

Championship Sunday began at 7 a.m. EDT when 24 golfers resumed their third rounds. Lowry proceeded to birdie two of his final four holes and save par from 10 feet on No. 18 to cap a round of 5-under-par 65. After 54 holes, Lowry leads by four strokes over upstart Andrew Landry and Dustin Johnson, and by five over Lee Westwood and Daniel Summerhays. Among the more distant pursuers are Branden Grace (1 under), Sergio Garcia and Scott Piercy (even par). Landry birdied his final hole of the morning, No. 18, from 45 feet to earn a spot in the final grouping with Lowry at 3:30 p.m. EDT.

After distancing himself from the pack with his early morning finish, Lowry defined his Round 4 mission: “Stay in the moment, stay patient and see what happens in the afternoon.” By completing 54 holes at 7 under par, the 29-year-old from County Offaly matched the lowest three-round total in U.S. Open history at Oakmont by Ernie Els, the eventual champion in 1994.

Only three men in the top 11 players heading into Round 4 – Branden Grace, Jason Day and Bryson DeChambeau, the 2015 U.S. Amateur champion – got to sleep in on Sunday.

Here’s a rundown of some of the prime contenders and, if applicable, their summation of the landscape heading into the final afternoon, which is expected to be warm, dry and with only a hint of a breeze. Oh, and difficult.

Having won the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational last year in Akron, Ohio, Lowry  can join the major-championship club in just his fourth U.S. Open start. On Saturday evening, he noted, “I beat a field of this quality already. So there's no reason I can't go out and do it again tomorrow.”

Andrew Landry came into the week ranked 624th in the world, but confident he could be competitive in his first major championship start, even telling his father he would win on Father’s Day. Only Francis Ouimet in 1913 won the U.S. Open in his major debut. Landry, 28, is a PGA Tour rookie who has yet to finish better than tied for 41st in any of his starts this year, though he did finish tied for sixth in a Tour event. Still, he didn’t seem surprised that he had a chance to be the second. “I feel like I play good golf on hard golf courses where par is a good score. That’s kind of my game. That’s always my game.”

No one has had more top-three finishes in a major without winning than Westwood, who has done it nine times. At age 43, the Englishman is running out of chances, though he seems rejuvenated after his T-2 at the Masters in April. He’s holed out twice for eagle from the fairway. Similar heroics would help him gain ground on Sunday.

Garcia, who has six top-3 finishes without a major title, says it’s nonsense to think he has a monkey on his back. The talented Spaniard, 36, hasn’t been this well-positioned to break through since the 2008 PGA Championship, though he’s enjoyed a few outside chances. A few years ago he said he did not think he had the tools to win one of golf’s big four tournaments. But he can prove himself wrong. “It’s a tough golf course, but I am excited about it. I feel good about it.”

Johnson, 31, has endured several close calls in the U.S. Open, including his runner-up finish last year to Jordan Spieth when he three-putted the 72nd green at Chambers Bay. He held the 36-hole lead here, but is now doing the chasing in the final round, four strokes back. “I’ve been in this position before. I know what to expect. I know how to handle it.”

Day, the world No. 1, tied Grace with the low round of the afternoon on Saturday, a 66, and sits at 1-over 211. Like Grace, he had a share of the lead last year at Chambers Bay, but he ended up tied for ninth as he battled through that mysterious bout of vertigo. After winning the PGA Championship in August, the Aussie, 28, is one of only two major winners among the top 11, joining reigning British Open champion Zach Johnson, who also is 1 over par. “I just want it to be hard and fast, and I think the harder the better, like a normal U.S. Open Sunday should be.”

Many tend to forget that Grace was in the thick of last year’s U.S. Open until he pumped a drive out of bounds at No. 16. His 66 on Saturday draws him into the fray, and he is a year older and wiser and could join Ernie Els as U.S. Open winners at Oakmont who hail from South Africa. “I think last year I handled myself better than I thought I would. I’ve got a lot of great past experiences. Definitely going to relive those and hopefully make a couple good ones tomorrow.”

Spieth, now 11 strokes back, is on the fringe at best in trying to become the first repeat winner of the U.S. Open since Curtis Strange in 1988-89. He seemed to have the right idea about his approach. “Have to come out tomorrow and try and pull a Johnny Miller.”

It’s a long shot, but anything is possible. Just ask Johnny Miller.

Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.